Sci & Tec: Practical Ways for ICT Professionals to Leapfrog Socio-Economic Development in the Wake of the Pro-Poor Agenda

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By Dr. Darren Wilkins ([email protected] | Phone: 0777129092 & 0886703789)

In previous articles, I gave my opinion and definition of my understanding of the pro-poor agenda. I also referenced the Pro-Poor agenda of Prime Minister Modi of India and aligned it with President Weah’s Pro-Poor agenda. Since he took over the helms of our Government, President George M. Weah has clearly taken lead of his Pro-poor agenda and continues to work tirelessly to ensure that it (pro-poor agenda) is successfully achieved. The 25% reduction in his salary, the payment of WASSCE fees for our children, and many other gestures on the part of the President, are evidence that he means business when it comes to improving the lives of the Liberian people. But, the President cannot do it alone. The success of the Pro-Poor agenda depends on every Liberian, or resident of Liberia. And, that includes those of us ICT professionals both inside and outside of the Government. In today’s article, I advocate the use of “blue sky” thinking and proffer some practical ways to leapfrog socio-economic development via ICT. I strongly believe we can use innovation and our collective genius to help the President achieve his goals. After all, a successful leader leads to a successful nation.

I have often argued that achieving the pro-poor agenda is not just about cutting our salaries but about using those salary cuts to benefit the poor, marginalized and vulnerable. I have also argued that improving the lives of the groups mentioned above requires “blue-sky thinking”, especially at a time when the economy faces major strangulations, thus, necessitating the application of strong austerity measures.

What do I mean by “blue sky” thinking? “Blue sky” thinking is a way of thinking creatively and reactively in a way that transcends current way of thinking. It means being innovative. Let us not forget, we are in the 21st century which requires 21st century ideas and solutions that can respond to changing times and changing needs. It also means, we cannot be frozen in time because of certain policies, or restrictions. In short, it means we need new ideas that can help us “leapfrog” social and economic development in Liberia; a type of development that benefits everyone including the poor, marginalized and vulnerable.

Over the years, we (Liberian ICT sector) made significant progress in ICT integration in Liberia. We developed the legal and regulatory instruments required to provide and guide a liberal market; built our capacity in some areas; and we managed to connect to the Africa Coast to Europe  (ACE) Undersea Optical Fiber cable. Connection to this cable gave us broadband capabilities and opened a plethora of possibilities for country. As you can see today, communication has improved overwhelmingly and access to information has become ubiquitous. But there is still a lot that needs to be done, especially in the areas of e-government, e-commerce, e-education, e-health, cybersecurity, and so on. Our government is currently faced with limited resources and several competing priorities. It does not have the resources necessary to invest significantly in ICTs. But it has demands for ICT and has embraced the fact that ICT is the enabler of sustainable socio-economic development.

So, how can we? So, what practical solutions can we provide to leapfrog social and economic development through ICTs, and help achieve the Pro-poor agenda? As I said earlier, with connection to the ACE cable gave us broadband connectivity, which also opens many possibilities. One of the possibilities is to leverage Cloud Computing or services, since we don’t have the resources to purchase and maintain high-end servers and build state-of-art data centers. The use of cloud services is a cost-effective way of tackling our many challenges faced by the lack of infrastructure, skills, etc. Cloud computer allows many things to happen including quick entry into a market, reduced capital and operational expenditures, and the creation of a level playing field for potential new market entrants. A low-cost level field for new entrants into a market can create jobs and allow more services and products to be offered to and by Liberians.

Considering the cost of maintaining ICT systems and our struggling economy, we must gravitate toward the development and use of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). History can bear me out that FOSS is one of the enablers of the Internet and the entire technology revolution which we all enjoy today. Our country has suffered over the years because we have not made significant efforts to leverage FOSS. Many of the ICT schools in Liberia do not teach Open Source Software as a course. Instead, and despite the fact that we are a poor country, we have been solely dependent on proprietary and cost-prohibitive software, mostly from large American companies like Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, and others. Our dependency on proprietary software has also increased the availability and use of pirated software, even at government level. We have to stop this and in order to stop this behavior, we must first relieve ourselves from the dependency on proprietary software and embrace and use FOSS.

Another thing we can do to leapfrog social and economic development while helping the President achieve his pro-poor agenda is to create what I call an “Innovation Community”, with the goal of testing new technologies to see how they might help us build our country. To do this, we may need to move away from hardware-dependent systems and adopt a more agile ICT infrastructure. And this means gravitating toward the cloud as a tool to modernize, streamline, reduce costs and innovate.

The combination of Cloud Computing, broadband Internet, and Open Source Software can enable Liberians to develop their own ICT products (software and services). This will help reduce our demand for software and ICT services from international providers, thereby preventing capital flight. It will also change the current “phenomenon” where Liberians are only consumers of ICT products, to a phenomenon which allows Liberians to become producers of products they create. We refer to these people as “Prosumers.”

Finally, As I mentioned earlier, we need 21st century tools to address 21st century challenges. This requires “blue-sky” thinking and a divorce from ideas and solutions that are frozen in time.  If we continue with the “business as usual” approach, we will achieve unsustainable development or should I say, temporary solutions to problems that we know will endure.

Until next week,

Carpe diem!

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